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For Kidjo, Musicians Must Be The Country's Voice

Feb 4, 2013

Singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo was born in Benin, West Africa. Today, she lives in New York City and is widely considered Africa's greatest living diva.

For Kidjo, music provides an outlet for both activism and pleasure. "Those two things are part of my stability," she tells NPR's Michel Martin. "I need that. No human being has endless compassion, you need to replenish yourself, and I know that if I didn't have music, I'd go crazy."

Creativity has always been part of Kidjo's emotional resilience. She recalls her father's advice to deal with boys' taunting her when she was trying to go to school. "Your ultimate weapon is your brain. Use it. Be creative. Find something that will baffle the intelligence," she says. "That's when I came up with the word 'Batonga.'" It was a word that she made up, and that became her mantra to help ignore those boys.

It is also the name that Kidjo decided to call her organization. The Batonga Foundation helps girls achieve a secondary education in Africa. "Because I want to give them that mantra. I want them to have wings," she says. Indeed, the foundation's logo is a butterfly. "I want the metamorphosis. I want those girls who come from a poor background to dream big, and to make that dream happen through education," she explains.

At the moment, the foundation works in five African countries. But Kidjo, also a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, is most concerned with the girls she helps in Mali, where fundamentalist Islamists have caused major unrest.

"I've no news since this conflict started," she says. "There's no day that goes by without me thinking about those girls." Even before France deployed troops to Mali to combat the violence, Kidjo said the girls were vulnerable. She says that every year, they would send messages saying "don't give up. We've dodged the bullet. We go to school."

The crisis in Mali has left the country in turmoil, and Kidjo also worries about the effect that Sharia law has had on its rich musical heritage. It reminds her of her own experience of the Communist regime in her native Benin. "The first thing they banned from radio and TV was the music," she remembers. "Why? Because from music people can find strength in themselves and say this is not right."

Kidjo notes, "When they shut the music down, they bring darkness. I don't see any society that can live without music."

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